Notions of Voluntary Identity and Citizenship in the
Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands


Emilian Kavalski

Loughborough University, Loughborough, U.K.

Copyright © 2003 by Emilian Kavalski, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    [T]he concentrated intensity of the slave experience is something that marked out blacks as the first truly modern people, handling in the nineteenth century dilemmas and difficulties which would only become the substance of everyday life in Europe a century later.
    Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic[1]

  1. Writing identity, as well as writing about identity is a quintessentially modern predicament intertwined in the deliberate act of writing as arriving at a state of consciousness. The writing process, in itself, proffers a textual ordering of the world arranged according to an individual point of view (which by definition is selective) and displays a particular identity perspective. In this sense, put in the contemporary context of globalisation politics, it would be stimulating to explore voluntary identity and citizenship (two essentially modern concepts of identity unravelled in the wake of current European integration) in the nineteenth-century narrative of Mary Seacole. Her text maps some of the cornerstones of modern being in search for the boundaries of selfhood. Her travels are indicative of such an exploration through migration, exile and a sense of displacement, which she articulated in her inversions as a desire of belonging within a (British) tradition. Thus, instead of being a displaced immigrant, she becomes an in-placed one. Reaching for a textual understanding and representation of her self she contiguously connects to other texts, which wedge her firmly into a literary canon, representing the very essence of this longed-for tradition. However, it was she who opted to embrace this rooted concept of identity, thus, representing the quiddity of the modern dichotomy of the self between choice and essence.

  2. In this context, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands exhibits an interesting document for the study of the formation of nineteenth-century concepts of identity and citizenship among Black and Creole (mixed-race) communities as an outline of the modern discourse on selfhood. Occupying an unique position of "not quite/not white" (Bhabha 84) -- "I am only a little brown -- a few shades duskier than the brunettes, whom you all admire so much" (58) [2] -- Mary Seacole embarks on the journey of articulating her own position in the colonial world, and in particular her relation to the metropole in the context of her identification as a "'real' British subject" (Robinson 538). In her quest for avowing her authenticity as a British subject, her narrative presents two somewhat distinct concepts of selfhood: "voluntary identity" (Hollinger 118) and citizenship. Her choice is to embrace the latter by inversely rejecting the former: her self-articulation within the notion of imperial subject-identity to a great extent resulting from her perception of selfhood in terms of disidentification with her mother's heritage and identification with "a father who symbolises the larger culture" (Waugh 72):
    to him I often trace my affection for camp life, and my sympathy with . . . 'the pomp, pride and circumstance of glorious war.' Many people have also traced to my Scotch blood that energy and activity, which are not always found in the Creole race. (55)

  3. In this way Mary Seacole at once establishes her elevated position within the Jamaican social hierarchy (as a member of the upper officer milieu) [3] and someone who was "formed, brought up, reared, taught, educated, nursed and nurtured to be, a kind of black English [person]" (Hall 5). However, it should be mentioned that despite her more or less conscious rejection of her mother's ex-slave culture, the Jamaican "Creole" tradition surreptitiously crops up in her narrative in the form of her herbal medicines and "do-it-yourself" solutions that she comes up with at different stages of her adventures. In fact, her vivacity and impetus to travel might be interpreted as deriving from what Edward Brathwaite calls the "folk" tradition of the African slaves to adapt successfully to the new environment in which they were transported (Brathwaite 212).

  4. Voluntary identity, as it would be viewed in this research, depicts the idea of an independent choice of individual identity accentuated by a more flexible understanding of cultural frontiers; it is an articulation of the conjecture of the past with the social, cultural and economic relations of the present. Citizenship, in Mary Seacole's case, means belonging to a tradition of a distinctive (British) society, whose individuals imagine their future in the invoked memory of a particular past, articulated in a designated language (in other words subject-identity). Thus, this sense of a willed consciousness is presented as more rigid and less flexible than voluntary identity. The main protagonists of voluntary identity in Mary Seacole's narrative are the ex-slaves she encounters in the Isthmus of Panama and the New Granada Republic, while she herself, after a series of inversions becomes the embodiment of the idea of model citizenship. To a great extent this is evidenced by the thrust of her story from the more personal sphere of her individual incidents in Kingston, Cruces and Gorgona towards the more public domain of her emblematic role during the Crimean war. Her narrative exemplifies Mary Seacole's attempt to order her private experiences within the record of public memory:
    I have attempted, without any consideration of dates, to give my readers some idea of my life in the Crimea. I am fully aware that I have jumbled up events strangely . . . but . . . unless I am allowed to tell the story of my life in my own way, I cannot tell it at all. (185)
    In this way, she also declares her "authoritative voice" (Robinson 541) over her narrative and establishes its trustworthiness through the testimonial letters of her soldier supporters. Thus, she legitimates her text as a truthful rendition of the official public memory; which, per se, is an inversion aimed at establishing Mary Seacole as the focality not only of her text, but also as the very epitome of received notions of Britishness.

  5. The concept of voluntary identity rejects ascribed and imposed identity, by privileging individual autonomy as opposed to the encumbrance of community demand for "a sense of identity as the reflection of an inner 'essence'" (Waugh 3). It repudiates the concept of frozen identity and instead favours an assumption of selfhood as an infinite process of identity construction. Mary Seacole, herself, in a large part of her narrative represents this type of a non-fixed identity, which is always fluid and able innovatively to respond to change, that gives her "the freedom . . . to become all she could be, despite the double obstacle of being coloured and a woman" (Josephs 48). In her self-identification she moves from "Creole" (55), through "yellow doctress" (85), "woman" (100) and "foreigner" (116) to "mother" (110) of the British soldiers and an "English woman" (223). This diverse palette of identification speaks for the marginal space that Mary Seacole occupied, which, in turn, allowed her the freedom to articulate her interiority within these different domains. Nevertheless, she aspired to be recognised as a complete subject within the space of British citizenry, attested by her ultimate subscription and identification with the imperial project. It is with the knowledge and experience of the latter that she rejected the notion of voluntary identity.

  6. The main proponents of the idea of voluntary selfhood in Mary Seacole's narrative are the former slaves who had broken the shackles of oppression in an act of defiance to the planter-imposed concepts of their race-inherent inferiority. Coming to the New Granada Republic these ex-slaves succeed to transform this stereotypical representation into an image of a race of socio-political reformers and "founders of a free state" (Hawthorne 317):
    Whatever was of any worth in their [the New Granada Republic] institutions, such as their comparative freedom, religious toleration, etc., was owing mainly to the negroes who had sought the protection of the republic . . . the blacks are enterprising, and in their opinions incline not unnaturally to democracy. (119)

  7. As Mary Seacole attests, this ability to assume a position of authority -- "the negroes of whom there were many in the Isthmus . . . almost invariably filled the municipal offices and took the lead in every way" (93) -- could be viewed as a result of the creative response to the need for an independent articulation of the circumstances in which the ex-slaves inhabited this particular place. Thus, by making it the base for a dispersed series of networks of exchanges with others, centred on distinctive interests, all of which were brought together in the sphere of continually reworked memory, they were able to express their conscious selfhood (Preston 9). Said otherwise, the locale of identity becomes their independent choice of who they were, contextualised within the deliberation of how central to their chosen identity is their experience of slavery. Adopting the interiority of voluntary identity allows them to achieve a level of self-understanding transcending the concepts of the fixed essence of identity. For instance, when "the alcalde, a Negro" (94; emphasis added) dared to stand up against the Americans, "indignant that a nigger should presume to judge one of their countrymen" (95; emphasis added) and expressed "his determination to make strangers respect the laws of the Republic" everybody is "puzzled" (95). "The Americans seemed too astonished at the audacity of the black man, who dare thus to beard them, to offer any resistance" (95; emphasis added). In the eyes of the Americans, this defiant attitude of the former slave puzzles not only with its dimension of mere daring that a former slave should challenge and control them; it astonishes with the realisation that he has cast away the ossified understanding of identity, which has caused the plantocracy's prejudiced stasis of meaning. The alcalde's voluntary identity carried in language gives new meaning to the conditions of his existence:
    it was wonderful to see how freedom and equality elevate men, and the same negro who perhaps in Tennessee would have cowered like a beaten child or dog beneath an American's uplifted hand, would face him boldly here, and by equal courage and superior physical strength cow his old oppressor. (185)

  8. It is also worth mentioning the gradation of epithets used to define the alcalde: from the neutral "negro," through the more or less pejorative "nigger" to the personifying and identity-recognising "black man." They signify the three levels of modern identification in relation to the other: an epistemic one, referring to the ignorance or lack of sufficient knowledge of the other's identity to express a judgement; value judgement -- distancing the other by imposing images of inferiority aimed at the other's submission; and rapprochement, which establishes a condition of equality relationship through the identification as the other (Todorov 185). In this way the alcalde's independent identification through an individual choice of self grants him the recognition of his equal human status in relation to the white Americans, despite his colour. In other words, his actions present a different understanding of the world from this of plantation-life America, which endows the old concepts with new meaning.
    Our idea of what belongs to the realm of reality is given for us in the language that we use. The concepts we have settle for us the form of the experience we have of the world. . . . The world is for us what is presented through those concepts. This is not to say our concepts may not change; but when they do our concept of the world has changed too. (Winch 15)

  9. The lack of contact between the alcalde's and the Americans' perspectives of identity urged the less flexible Americans to become "terribly enraged" (102) because they recognised, in their inability to respond to such change, a certain danger for what they deem the essence of their self, taxonomised within the tradition of Southern plantocracy. The novelty (and what also took the Americans aback) is the facility with which the ex-slaves turned the tables on their former masters by appropriating even the characteristics of property within their voluntary identification. For example the "ruler" of the community of Escribanos, who "was a black man . . . possessed a house . . . a white wife, and a pretty daughter" (114; emphasis added). This reveals another aspect of the ex-slaves' self-chosen identity, which does not exclude the adoption of attributes representative for their former oppressors.

  10. However, Mary Seacole implicitly suggests that the "free and independent . . . citizen of the United States" (92-93) is an unlikely sufferer of such an inferiority-complex; even only because the Americans rebelled against and broke free from the realm of the British Empire. In this sense, they became one of the first to proffer the concept of voluntary identity. The act of severing the umbilical cord with the metropole represents their sovereign choice between to spheres of identification: from a general concept of economic and political superstructure to a more local and familiar domain of knowledge, which was also deemed more profitable and wielding more control over the resources.

  11. It is in this context that Mary Seacole makes the distinction between the real American subject and the impostors, who have only adopted the name without its substance -- "everybody familiar with the Americans knows their fondness for titles" (90). She embarks on the inversion of the ex-slaves living in New Granada as the embodiment of the true Americans who stand for "democracy . . . humanity and civilisation" (119). Such treatment of the issue is vital for the comprehension of the later discussion of Mary Seacole's inversion of her own position from a marginal resemblance of the "real British subject" into the focality of the very values, which put her outside the boundaries of this term. She acknowledges a bifurcation of American society by referring to the "New Granadans" ignorance of this fact, whose
    experiences of American manners have not been favourable; and they do not know . . . how little real sympathy the Government of the United States has with the extreme class of its citizens who have made themselves so conspicuous in the great high-road to California. (119)

  12. This statement put within the contiguity of ex-slave-master relationship inversion made the alcalde's (as well as the other negroes') voluntary identity emblematic of the self-reliance and independence, which the American Republic stood for. Within the interiority of voluntary self they (like the "Yankees" [93] during the American War of Independence) have favoured to re-articulate the values and their status in a society, which they aspired to create by breaking free from the political structure of oppression, implying the re-mapping of their accommodation through laying a claim on their new environment.

  13. Mary Seacole, however, because of her choice to act in the opposite direction by charging the very core of the position she wanted to adopt for herself, rejected the escapism of voluntary identity and appropriated the characteristics of an imperial citizen. This can explain her negative attitude towards the Americans and by inversion towards the ex-slaves she encountered in the New Granada Republic -- because they had wished away the very status (she had already achieved) of a model subject of the British Empire and instead had chosen to develop their own post-subject, voluntary identity, which "privilige[d] individual autonomy and rejecte[d] imposed community structures" (Martinello 67).

  14. In fact Mary Seacole's narrative is replete with negative depictions of others -- non-British subjects -- who in the context of her claim to be a 'real British subject' are seen as threats to her identification. Her understanding of her subject-self is driven from her belief in an essential, unchanging tradition at the core of identity. Thus, the others are viewed as challenging the narrative memory of this shared collective history of the British subjects:
    The Frenchman seemed mischievously inclined, and . . . began with the taunt of "Redan, no bono -- Redan, no bono." I never saw any man look so helplessly angry as the Englishman did. For a few minutes he seemed absolutely rooted to the ground. . . . All at once, however, a happy thought struck him, and rushing up to the Zouave, he caught him round the waist and threw him down, roaring out, "Waterloo was bono -- Waterloo was bono." (219-20)

  15. What she is intuiting is that the others' presentation of alternative versions of political memory manifested a different tradition, a foreign violation of the boundaries of British identity, which is where Mary Seacole wanted to anchor her self in as home: "I clearly had no home to go to" (226. Emphasis added). From the inception of the narrative her departure towards subject-identity is suggestively indicated by the idea of home as a "place to leave which is where most folks will say you must be coming from" (June Jordan quoted in Rutherford 14), intimately intertwined with the concept of metropole:
    I was never weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never followed with my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing to be in them, and see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the distance. (57; emphasis added)

  16. For Mary Seacole, England was the pilgrimage site of her identity as citizen of the Empire. Her trips to Britain, however, forfeit their Hajj-like dimension in the light of the harassment and blocking of her efforts, which she encountered because of her complexion:
    Strangely enough, some of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London street-boys to poke fun at my companion's complexion. I am only a little brown . . . but my companion was very dark and a fair (if I can apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit. She was hot-tempered, poor thing! and as there were no policemen to awe the boys and turn our servants' heads in those days, our progress through the London streets was sometimes a rather chequered one. (58)

    Doubts and suspicions arose in my heart for the first and last time, thank Heaven. Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? (126)

    Nevertheless, in both cases, it is always the other's fault for the "violation of the cultural categories" (Robinson 542), which Mary Seacole identifies with: in the former it is her "very dark" companion[4] and "American prejudices" [5] are in the latter. In the context of such inversion Mary Seacole becomes the central representative of British-subject conventionality by sloughing off her marginality on other "subalterns" (216). In her articulation of a "different selfhood" (Hawthorne 322) her depictions of the others became something more than mere representations of figures of difference. They were seen as enemy images against which she constructed British national identity.

  17. The list of others, which appear on the pages of her book would be too long to enumerate: but whether they are the "Spanish-Indians," the "French-Zouaves," the Greeks, the "Sardinians," the "Maltese," the "Esquimaux" or even the "Patagonians," they are invariably described within her discourse of contrasting difference as "plunderers," "thieves" and "robbers," This discourse represents the "complex of signs and practices, which organises social existence" in its capacity "to give differential substance to membership in a social group or class" by mediating both "an internal sense of belonging to the group and an outward sense of otherness" (Slemon 6). Thus, by distancing herself from the reductionist exclusion of marginality, she presents the "foreigners . . . as troublesome" (115), as strangers who are seen as figures of counteracting and antithetical opposition:
    Tea and coffee were the common beverages of the Americans; Englishmen, and men of other nations being generally distinguishable by their demand for wine and spirits. But the Yankee's capacity for swilling tea and coffee was prodigious. (89)

  18. Paradoxically, Mary Seacole establishes her self as the primary conveyor of authentic subject identity through her inverted juxtaposition with the others. Yet again, in this very act, one might extrapolate the effects of her mother's tradition. Mary Seacole's emulation of the British ways might be subsumed as a result of the African experience of imitating the Europeans:
    It was one of the tragedies of slavery . . . that it should have produced such "mimic-men." But in the circumstances this was the only kind of "white" imitation that would have been accepted, given the terms in which the slaves were seen; and it was this kind of mimicry that was . . . cultivated by "middle class" Jamaican society after Emancipation. (Brathwaite 300)

  19. Thus, interpreted against the matrix of received tradition, the others' presence incurs on the boundaries of Britishness with their alien customs and habits. Seacole inhered to the understanding of her identification with the larger body of politico-cultural traits underscoring the notions of citizenship. This type of identification becomes for her a consistent process of learning to make her self at home with the interiority of imperial subject culture and by her own planning she accomplished to become "a strategist rather than a victim of her situation" (Kerr 210). Probably, in defining herself within such an environment, it is more of a stratagem than a coincidence that the bulk of her negative attitude towards the others is directed against the "Yankees," the "Spaniards," the French, and the Irish, which, at her time, would have been immediately identified as outsiders to the accommodation of British citizenship. That is why, she did not impersonate them as individual beings but as members of distinct national units against which British selfhood has been developed.

  20. In this context, the reason for naming her establishment the "British Hotel" can be interpreted as an attempt to carve out from the Crimean environment a site, which would entwine the resemblance of "home comforts" (128) with the lodging of a space for the performance of Mary Seacole's British subject identity. It provides the actualising representation of her attachment to a "national-cultural community, as a sovereign entity and place set against other places" (Said 8) that situate her as a source of home-memory. Her appropriation of the designation of "guardian and purveyor of English values" (Paquet 652) was a result of her text's celebration of everyday activities, which remained outside the public historical record, but which in effect represented her very attachment to Britishness. Her narrative punctuated the central place of everyday life for the re-enactment of individual identity. Mary Seacole's description of the camp's routine established a direct relationship (in the context of 'longing for reconnection' [Paquet 652]) with British traditions. For instance, the description of her daily chores, the food that she cooked for the soldiers ("They all liked the cake, poor fellows, better than anything else: perhaps because it tasted of 'home'" [146]), what she wore on the day of a particular battle, or the detail of the "want of so simple a thing as a pocket-handkerchief" (117). She was able to empower the sphere of what could be viewed as mundane domesticity and make it noteworthy for the public arena, by textualising the relation of the private realm to that of the public domain (O'Callaghan 90). Thus, everyday life adopted an element of historicity lodged within the scope of her claim-to-real-Britishness project.
    Everyday life is the historically conditioned framework in which the imperatives of natural sustenance (eating, sleeping . . .) come to be socially determined: it is in the intersubjectivity of everyday life that human self-reproduction is wedded to the wider process of social reproduction. (Wright 6)

  21. Her everyday practice "aligns [her] with the metropolitan interests" (Robinson 549) and construes the "British Hotel" as "the most complete thing," in the sense of its representative role embodied in "a large union-jack" (156) and furnishing the "essentials of English at-homeness" (Paquet 655). In effect Mary Seacole's identification through her work might hanker to what Brathwaite calls "creolisation" -- the slaves' identification through their work (Brathwaite 288) -- which again suggests the inadvertent influence of the tradition represented by her mother. Nevertheless, her wedging into this space is also indicative of her own imposition on (if not colonisation of) the Crimean land, without attempting to interpret the local environment, but directly subjecting it to her established (colonial) modes of settling her identity. [6] In this sense her delineation of the land can be perceived as the encumbrance of her own meanings on the local environment by constituting the British Hotel as the boundary of her identity and the site for the invocation of nostalgic home-memory, represented through the re-enactment of particular traditions. Such an interpretation of the topography of her establishment points to the inference that Mary Seacole's emphasis on the others' stealing from her stores, mentioned above, could be explicated as a violation of the boundaries of British identity within the context of historic memory:
    During the time we were in the Crimea we lost over a score of horses, four mules, eighty goats, many sheep and poultry by thieving alone. . . . The determination and zeal which besiegers and besieged showed with respect to a poor pig, which was quietly and unconsciously fattening in its sty, are worthy of record. (160)

  22. Thus, her quotidian "endeavours to give [the soldiers] a taste of home" (180) transforms Mary Seacole into a symbol of the mother country:
    their [the soldiers] calling me "mother" was not, I think, altogether unmeaning. I used to fancy that there was something homely in the word: and, reader, you cannot think how dear to them was the smallest thing that reminded them of home. (168; emphasis added)
    This success to invert her desire for recognition as a "real British subject" into the soldiers' desire for the British Hotel's home "comforts" as a representation of Britain emphasises her ability to connect with the symbolic structures of home-memory, while, at the same time, inversely establish herself as their sole quintessence. Mary Seacole authored her self as the locus of the soldiers' mother-country recollection in constituting her experience and practice within the extent of British subject-identity through the indwelling of their home values. She substituted "mother, wife or sister" (167), which induced the soldiers to view themselves as her "sons". As one soldier reveals, "I can't say good-bye to the dear ones at home, so I'll bid you good-bye for them" (190). She sympathised with the soldiers "as men away from home" (Josephs 64) and in this way, she achieved the complete inversion of her resemblance of Britishness to be understood as the original. A resemblance, which interestingly enough is to be copied by others, like, for instance, the "Anglo-Turkish Pacha" (154).

  23. Mary Seacole teaches him to speak English; that is to articulate his interiority within the accommodation of a British subject. However, his "great ambition" (154) to pick up some British ways was not driven from a desire to lodge his self within the linguistic topography of British subject consciousness. For her English is the language, which describes her identity to the world, while for the Pacha it is only a representation of the British ways, a mere simulacrum. His failure to achieve the standards of "Madame Seacole" (154) might be owing to the fact that he is a resemblance of a resemblance, which distances the Pacha further from the original. This is exemplified by the rendition of his band of "a grand new tune, in which [Mary Seacole] with difficulty recognised a very distant resemblance of 'God Save the Queen'" (154. Emphasis added).

  24. Inadvertently, her insistence on her efforts and actions made her altogether a copy better than the original. The culmination of her drive through the problematic territory of identification towards her immersion with the patterns of the British subject is wafted through her description of Lord Raglan's funeral.
    And once again they let me into the room in which the coffin lay, and I timidly stretched out my hand and touched a corner of the union-jack which lay upon it; and then I watched it wind its way through the long lines of soldiery towards the Kamiesch, while, ever and anon, the guns thundered forth in sorrow, not in anger. And for days after I could not help thinking of the "Caradoc," which was ploughing its way through the sunny sea with its sad burden. (199)

  25. This is the turning point in Mary Seacole's narrative, which resolves all conflicts of the public perception of her subject identity. She and her hotel became a normative institution, "a kind of community centre" (Kerr 210) and a forum for the articulation and continuity of Britishness, suggested through the re-enactment of the traditions of her political community. She succeeded to construct a society that reflected her self-perceived status of authentic Britishness. She became the very synthesis of British traditions, thus resolving the disparity between her community and her individuality; for her there was no division between the two, because she was the community. That is why, when Christmas arrived in the British camp, it was quite natural that she should be the one to provide the soldiers with the "pleasant memories of home and of home comforts . . . showed . . . in the many applications made to the hostess of the British Hotel for plum-puddings and mince-pies" (220-21). Her comfort within the recognition of an essential British subject-identity is evinced in her contemplation,
    if the people of other countries are as fond of carrying with them everywhere their home habits as the English. I think not. I think there was something purely and essentially English in the determination of the camp to spend the Christmas-day of 1855 after the good old "home" fashion. (220. Emphasis added)

  26. Thus, accommodating the British exceptional attachment to their national tradition, Mary Seacole inverts her own exceptionality as the representation of this purely and essentially English identity and becomes the appropriated embodiment of the "English woman" (223). Her model British subject-identity is interpreted as "an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to preserve many a gallant heart to the empire" (228) and her "return to England" (233) is contextualised as her going back home to her "own people" (230).

  27. This completes Mary Seacole's journey in the realm of identification. Her narrative points to the exchange between two essentially modern understandings of selfhood: voluntary identity and citizenship (subject-identity). In spite of the separate treatment of each in the present research there is an interface between the two: i.e. the alcalde's voluntary identification as a social reformer is compatible with his citizenship in the New Granada Republic; Mary Seacole, in turn, exemplifies a voluntary choice to be identified as a genuine subject of the British Empire. Nevertheless, despite (if not because of) this overlapping, the text succeeded in presenting some of the modern dilemmas of identification on the crossroads between the cultural and political domain with the personal and public sphere. Within the context of such multiplicity, the rigidity of any form of identification would always be prone to confluence with the others. Even Mary Seacole recognises this when she speaks of the "one common language of the whole world" (204), which articulates human beings to one another not as bearers of a particular group, ethnic, or national attachment, but as individuals - sons of the mutually shared heritage of humanity.

  28. Of course, Mary Seacole's narrative suggests such an universalistic interpretation only on the background of current discussions of global citizenship, if put in the context of the unique modernity of Black experience: "The Negroes, therefore, from the very start lived a life that was in its essence a modern life" (James 392). Her story is a celebration of the conformity and security within the accommodation of Britishness, which she perceived and made her own. Being viewed as an other her success to emblematise the very home of this interiority resulted from Mary Seacole's achievement to invert the structure of her representation, and in effect to take control over it. Perhaps, from contemporary perspective her almost total blending (or melting) within the imperial identification might be viewed as her failure to recognise the opportunities of voluntary identity. Especially its option to adopt the citizenship of any political entity without such infringement on individual identity, which gives a wide berth for non-problematic shifts between different realms of self-perception. Instead, Mary Seacole chose to identify with the concept of British citizenry, relinquishing the prospect of identification through constant change. Her embrace of the "idea of tradition" (Gilroy 188) can be read within her desire for stability of the boundaries of her self as the assertion of the coherence of the imperial project. She saw herself as one of the British and succeeded to make the rest see her as such.


  1. Gilroy 221. Back

  2. 1 This and the following citations from Mary Seacole's narrative follow the text edited by Alexander and Dewjee. Back

  3. 1 For a discussion on the issues of colour, race, class and the individual see Cannadine. Back

  4. 1 Something, which according to Cannadine might be read in terms of the stratification of Jamaican society. Mary Seacole's companion was clearly a servant, thus, her inferior position and, thence, this negative interpretation. Back

  5. 1 In this instance, again following Cannadine, we might see a clash of understandings of the social hierarchy. The white "ladies" fail to recognise the position, which Mrs. Seacole occupies in Jamaican society, because of her colour. Something, which according to the prevailing white principles of social organisation puts her on a lower level than them (very much like the class differentiation in America at the time, where colour was a crucial element). Back

  6. 11 For instance, the incident of the flooding of her "temporary hut" can be read as her ineptitude to interpret the environment because of her transposition of her imported/appropriated colonial values: "the little stream which threaded its silvery way past Spring Hill swelled without any warning into a torrent, which sweeping through my temporary hut, very nearly carried us all away, and destroyed stores of between one and two hundred pounds in value" (153). Back

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